July 7, 2017 at 9:00 AM
There's a farm opening soon in Laurel, Md., that can grow strawberries in January. It could grow rare tropical fruits from Asia and Central America on our native soil. It could produce custom-designed lettuce, more peppery or sweet. It's a hydroponic farm in a shipping container, and its owners hope it could eventually put an end to food deserts, including our biggest one: outer space.
Local Roots, a California company, has created an indoor farm that can turn any produce into local produce, anywhere. They grow fruits and vegetables in shipping containers that are stacked in old warehouses or parking lots, which can either be connected to the grid or, eventually, powered by solar energy. Local Roots has designed the custom growing technology and hardware, and it owns and operates the farms, selling its produce to restaurants and food distributors under its own brand. The fact that the company is vertically integrated differentiates it from other container farming systems, like Freight Farm, which sells their containers to others, including novice farmers.
"You can start to bring that farm into communities that historically had to import their food due to geography, climate, weather, soil or light." chief executive Eric Ellestad said.
Every 40-foot shipping container can yield the annual equivalent of three to five acres of farmland. Ellestad says his company can grow plants twice as fast as a conventional farm while using 97 percent less water.
Here's how they do it: Every farm is hydroponic, meaning the plants are grown in nutrient-rich water instead of soil. Leftover water is recirculated, so each container only uses between 5 to 20 gallons each day. They also use sensors to keep tabs on how the plants are growing, and can give them exactly the nutrients they need at that phase in the growing cycle, speeding it up. It's "almost a growing algorithm in some ways," Ellestad said. "You can use that software platform to drive that farm as efficiently as possible."
Included in that are LED lamps that give the plants exactly the right wavelengths of light they need to grow and which can bring out certain qualities in their appearance and flavor. Chlorophyll, the molecule that causes photosynthesis in plants, absorbs red and blue light, so the farms usually look pink or purple. With its rows of lights and repetition, a container farm that was on display at the South by Southwest conference in March felt a bit like stepping into a Yayoi Kusama infinity room.
When they tool around with different growing conditions, they can bring out certain qualities in their produce — the same way that terroir gives grapes grown in California a different taste than ones grown in France.
"You can sit down and say, 'What do you want your lettuce to taste like? Do you want it to be more peppery?' " Ellestad said. "Especially with basil, you can really accentuate some of those flavors. You can really sit down and co-design a product with a chef."
All of the produce is grown organically, and there's little risk of the types of E. coli scares that pop-up in conventional farming. "Occasionally a fly will get in, and that's as serious as it gets," Ellestad said.
Another key fact: Local Roots has figured out how to make the farm efficient enough that it can sell produce at a comparable cost to conventionally-grown fruits and veggies.
"If you can only sell produce to affluent customers in the Northeast, then that's a fantastic business but you're not really going to change how the food system functions for most Americans," Ellestad said.
They already have a farm of several dozen containers up and running in Los Angeles, and later this year, they're bringing one to D.C. It will be located in Laurel because it's adjacent to Coastal Sunbelt Produce, a major food distributor in the area that has partnered with Local Roots. Co-locating the farms means that they won't have to worry about transportation time or costs — which also means the produce will be selected for its flavor, rather than its hardiness, as many vegetables that must travel long distances are.
"We're pretty excited about the freshness, just having it grown about as local as it can get," said Jason Lambros, vice president of purchasing for Coastal Sunbelt. "We can be a neat place for them to experiment and grow anything we can dream of, because we have the customers for it."
The flexibility and scalability of the farms has huge implications for food deserts, a term for communities that have many fast food restaurants, but few places to purchase fresh, nutritious food. Once Local Roots has scouted a location and set up a farm, its first harvest can take place only four weeks later. The company could drop a farm in the middle of Alaska, where a bag of lettuce can cost nearly $6, or in famine-stricken South Sudan, or here in Anacostia, where there are only three full-service grocery stores in Ward 3.
So why don't they? It's about having the infrastructure to distribute the food properly, Ellestad said.
"I think simply helicoptering a farm into a food desert could be part of the solution," Ellestad said. "We would want to partner with the groups that are already working in that community … we can't operate in isolation. The food system is far too complex and localized."
For example, they could put a container farm in a neighborhood with few amenities and sell their produce to corner stores, but if the corner stores don't have refrigerated cases for produce, it would rot. They are currently seeking partners that work in food deserts, as well as literal ones — "In the Middle East, there's obviously huge food-supply-chain issues in those areas," he said. Container farms could be a solution for disaster relief after earthquakes, floods or humanitarian crises.
But they're also looking a bit further. The company is talking to aerospace manufacturer Space X because these types of growing systems could one day be used to feed astronauts on long-term missions to other planets. "The opportunities are global and intergalactic at the same time," said Ellestad.
For now, they're going to begin growing lettuce, herbs and microgreens in the area, while expanding to other cities in the United States. And as efficient as indoor growing is, Ellestad doesn't think it will replace good, old-fashioned rain, sun and soil.
"You can't eliminate any source of production, " he said. "You need everyone growing more, and doing it better."
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